It is definitely a guilty pleasure – because some of the jokes are filthy – and so I’m not even sure I should post about “Jeff Ross Presents Roast Battle,” a live four-night event which I’ve been watching since Thursday on Comedy Central. It wraps up tomorrow night.
But – with the warning that you should NOT watch this program if you are easily offended – I wanted to write about it, if only to explore why I find it so funny.
My first exposure to the idea of a “roast” was the roasts that Dean Martin used to host, as stand-alone specials and as segments of his variety show, when I was much younger. Those network-TV-friendly roasts, of course, were based on the much-more vulgar roasts that the Friar’s Club had hosted for generations.
In the late 1990s, Comedy Central made a deal to televise several Friar’s Club roasts, editing and bleeping them to take out the very worst profanities, but still leaving in a lot of material that would never have made it past NBC censors in Dean Martin’s day. The relationship with the Friar’s Club ended, but Comedy Central just started producing its own roasts along the same model.
Jeff Ross is a comedian who served as a bridge between the older Friar’s Club members and a new generation of comics. He has a passion for the roast format, and has been on pretty much all of the Friar’s Club and self-produced roasts since Comedy Central got into the business.
A year or two ago, Comedy Central tried to give Ross a show, “The Burn,” in which he and a panel of comics tried to use roast-like jokes to comment on pop culture and current events, but it didn’t work – I think in part, because the jokes were directed at people who weren’t in the room. In the specific setting of a roast, you can be incredibly mean and insulting – because that’s the norm, the expectation, and the subject of the roast has, in effect, agreed in advance to this kind of treatment.
That’s not to say that roast participants, especially first-timers, aren’t taken aback by the atmosphere sometimes. When Comedy Central roasted Larry The Cable Guy, squeaky-clean Jeff Foxworthy was the host, and after one particularly vulgar roaster had delivered his monologue, Jeff looked at the camera and said, wryly, “I’d like to say hello to the members of my Sunday School class who are watching at home.”
Anyway, the jokes in “The Burn” didn’t have the same appeal because the victims weren’t in on the joke the way the guest of honor at a roast is.
Ross has, however, adapted the roast style of comedy to another format which is a little more successful – the roast battle. I’ve been hearing identical twin comics Randy and Jason Sklar talk about roast battles on their podcast, and this weekend’s TV event is the first time I’ve actually seen one.
It’s basically an insult competition. Two comics are brought out, and they take turns hurling the foulest, meanest, most creative and funny insults they can think of at each other. Like the comedy of Don Rickles, jokes that in any other context would seem racist, misogynist or just in extremely poor taste are funny, because we the audience have consciously decided to allow them, and we know there’s no real malice behind them. On the TV show, each competitor gets four jokes. Then, a panel of judges decides which of the two comics got the upper hand.
Man, these jokes are nasty – both in the sense of personal attack and in the sense of vulgarity. But there’s a good-natured goofiness to the proceedings that takes the edge off. One of the announced rules is that the contestants have to hug each other at the end of a match.
This weekend’s event is set up as a tournament. They had a first round spread across Thursday and Friday, quarterfinals tonight, and they’ll have semifinals and finals tomorrow night. The judges so far have included Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Rogen, David Spade and Kevin Hart. (Ross is technically the third judge, but he tends to defer to the opinions of that night’s two guest judges.) Tomorrow, Judd Apatow and Sarah Silverman will be the judges.
Again, this is a guilty pleasure, something that a lot of people would consider offensive. But I can’t turn away.